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Physicists Working in Industry, Two Views

These contributions are reprinted with the authors'
permission from the October 8, 1996 Women in Physics email discussion group (wiphys@aps.org)

January 1997


Kathy Kirby

I have been working in the aerospace industry (Hughes) for over 8 years, starting only weeks after graduating with my Bachelor's degree in physics. While working, I took advantage of industry fellowship programs and obtained my Master's degree in Physics in 1993.

First of all, the difference between the academic community and the aerospace industry is very large (and not just pay scale). They differ in their objectives, their philosophy regarding employees, their ability to help you achieve personal goals, and pay. Both industry and academia have their advantages and disadvantages in both categories. Personally, I prefer industry's constant exposure to new technologies and the team atmosphere versus the academic"publish or perish" stereotype.

Second, I will tell you right away, that you will either like working in industry or detest it. The only way to tell is to try it, and that means applying for jobs and interviewing.

Third, as a physicist in industry, I do not use my physics training all the time. I have certainly used what I learned to solve problems encountered (mechanics, E&M,...), but I do not do research (some places do! Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, for instance). One of the primary advantages of being a physicist in industry is that your physics background exposes you to so many fields that you can quickly perform on many different types of tasks. This"non-specialized" performance is becoming more and more
valued as competition in the market increases.

Many physicists in industry, such as myself, become "firefighters": because of their diversified knowledge basis, they can attack just about any problem and help get programs back on track. I have fought technical problems, hardware problems, software problems, and even administrative problems. I assure you, I am never bored!

Because of demonstrated abilities in a number of areas, I no longer fight fires on a regular basis. I currently serve as a Programs Manager, Technical Manager,and Business Area Exec. I fight fires in my spare time just for fun!

Kathy Kirby works for Hughes in Colorado


Nancy Forbes

In regards to the query about non-academic career tracks, my own experience might be helpful to others considering different kinds of careers with a physics background. I attended Columbia University (undergrad and grad) in physics as a "second career" of sorts. I had previously completed an M.A. in a liberal arts field, and worked as a journalist, before returning to school at CU in 1980. I ultimately left with a Master's degree in physics, as I was tired of school, discouraged, and felt there were many options out there with my level of training. I ultimately came to Washington D.C. as I believed (and still do) there is a real need for scientists who have good communication skills to work in the science policy arena, and to help bridge the gap between the scientific world and the lay public.

Non-scientists, particularly legislators in Congress, need to become better informed about technical issues, and I think those with a good science background could consider possible careers in this area. I currently work for a government consulting firm, PRC Inc., where I provide technical/scientific support for the Defense Advanced Project Research Agency. I use my physics background a lot, and also have the chance to write, which I enjoy, explaining technical ideas to non-scientists.

For those who are interested, I would suggest taking a look at the Encyclopedia of Associations in the library, to see what organizations might employ those with a science background, for programmatic kinds of positions. Other avenues are government consulting firms, which provide technical support to DOD, EPA, DOT, etc. Your school's career counseling center should have info. on these. I would also suggest networking as much as possible with organizations like AWIS, SWE, WISE, etc.

The above is rather sketchy, but I would be glad to answer more specific questions for anyone who is interested.

Nancy Forbes works for PRC, Inc. in Arlington, VA

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